VFW just surviving says leadership
By STEVE KADEL Western News Reporter
Reports of VFW Post 1548's death are greatly exaggerated, as Mark Twain wrote about his published obituary, but members acknowledge the club's pulse is weak.
"The VFW is just hanging on by the skin of our teeth," past commander Hal Cole said.
Mayor Tony Berget says he gets two or three calls a week from people asking if the club is on the verge of closing.
As with many household budgets, the VFW is surviving month-to-month and holding its breath that unexpected expenses don't pop up.
"The trouble comes when we get hit with big bills, like insurance," Cole said.
The VFW makes a $925 initial payment for insurance each year, followed by a $300-per-month payment. It's necessary for liability because the club serves alcohol.
One of the unexpected expenses this year came when the building's air conditioning and heating system broke down. It required service from Kalispell that cost $90 for the trip to Libby, and $65 an hour for the work.
Current commander Bob Barnes said employment hits Libby has absorbed over the years, such as losing the mill, play a big part in the tenuous financial condition.
"The economy in this town is down," Barnes said. "We used to have good crowds."
Not only do fewer people congregate in the lounge than when times were good, but attendance at VFW meetings also is declining. Cole and Barnes say only 15 or 16 of the 340 members show up.
Barnes said he ended up in the role of post commander after he began going to meetings to bolster the sagging attendance.
"I was one of those guy who didn't come to the meetings," he said.
Both men said the Memorial Center, formerly known as Veterans Memorial Gym, cut into the VFW's revenue when it opened as an entertainment outlet.
"The Memorial Center took away a lot of business we'd had before," Cole said. "People dropped us and went over there because it was bigger. That's what hurt us."
The VFW moved into its current location at 114 W. Second St. after the roof caved in during heavy snows of the 1996-97 winter. The new, larger facility is home to some community events — an option that will be missed if the VFW closes down as some members want.
"It isn't the VFW we're talking about," Cole said, "we're talking about the community services we can provide because of this building."
Military veterans of all stripe benefit directly from many of those services. For example, a medical clinic is staffed on site by the Veterans Administration two and a half days each month. Also, veterans throughout the region attend the annual Stand Down held at Post 1548, where the community room bulges with free clothing for those in need.
The post's Ladies Auxiliary cooks a free meal for vets during Stand Down, one of many times they provide hot meals for those in the community.
"We have a darn good auxiliary," Barnes said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's food distribution program also operates out of the building. Cole said 150 Libby residents get groceries worth $100 or more every two months through the low-income program.
Cole said it would easy to move into a smaller location and just operate a lounge, if that's all VFW members want. But that wouldn't benefit the community, so club officials are brainstorming ways to bring in more money.
Next on tap is a fuel and food raffle in December. The winner gets $300 worth of fuel, and the runner-up wins a $100 gift certificate at Rosauers.
Things will become even tighter financially in five years when a partial payment on the building made monthly by local government expires. Barnes said the club should be putting money away to prepare for larger payments ahead, but he asks, "Where are you going to get money to put away?"
VFW officials are open to suggestions from local residents.
"If people can come up with any ideas how we can make money, we'll give it a try," Cole said. "We just want a chance to keep the building going."